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DERRIDA DISCOURSE AND DECONSTRUCTION

STRUCTURALISM AND POST-STRUCTURALISM

4.4. THE MOVE TO POST-STRUCTURALISM

4.4.1. DERRIDA DISCOURSE AND DECONSTRUCTION

History took a linguistic turn under the influence of works in other social sciences – Levi-Strauss in anthropology, Saussure in linguistics, and the iconoclastic Derrida who declared that “there is nothing outside the text”. Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), the French thinker, developed deconstruction as a technique for uncovering the multiple interpretations of texts. His ideas were influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) and Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) – German philosophers who put to radical question fundamental philosophical concepts such as “knowledge”, “truth”, and “identity” – as well as Sigmund Freud (1856- 1939), whose psychoanalysis violated traditional concepts of a coherent individual consciousness and a unitary self. Derrida presented his views in three books, all published in 1967, entitled Of Grammatology, Writing and Difference, and Speech and Phenomena.

Derrida suggests that all texts have ambiguity and because of this the possibility of a final and complete interpretation is impossible.

The Derrida discourse was set against the phonocentric Western tradition of privileging speech over writing. Derrida‟s classic, Of Grammatology (1967), is his most influential work in North America. It is the story of how – in the West – speech is central and natural and writing is marginal and unnatural. For Derrida the entire Western tradition of thought favors speech, the spoken word over writing, the written word. Derrida calls this bias as logocentrism, which believes that truth is the voice, the word, or the expression, of a central, original and absolute Cause or Origin. For example, in the New Testament the Word

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is God and God is the Word. In fact, Derrida says that logocentrism has dominated the whole Western tradition and hence the whole history of logocentrism is one vast metaphysics of presence. In reaction to logocentrism, Derrida coined the term deconstruction which often involves a way of reading that concerns itself with decentering – with unmasking the problematic nature of all centers. For him, all Western thought is based on the idea of a center – an Origin, a Truth, an Ideal Form, a Fixed Point, an Essence, a God, a Presence, which is usually capitalized, and guarantees all meaning. For instance, Western culture has been centered on the idea of Christianity and Christ. And it is the same in other cultures as well.

They all have their own central symbols. Then, what‟s the matter with that? The problem with centers, for Derrida, is that they attempt to exclude. In doing so, they ignore or marginalize others (which become the other). In patriarchal societies, man is central (and woman is the marginalized other, repressed, ignored, pushed to the margins).

If you have a culture which has Christ in the center of its icons, then Christians will be the central to that culture, and Buddhists, Muslims, Jews – anybody different – will be in the margins – marginalized – pushed to the outside. We must remember that Derrida was born into an assimilated Jewish family in Algiers, growing up as a member of a marginalised dispossessed culture. So the longing for a center spawns binary opposites, with one term of the opposition central and the other marginal. Moreover, centers want to fix, freeze the play of binary opposites. Derrida sees the history of Western thought as based on opposition: good vs. evil; spirit vs. matter; nature vs. culture; man vs. woman; speech vs. writing. These oppositions are defined hierarchically: the second term is seen as a corruption of the first, the terms are not equal opposites. According to Derrida we have no access to reality except through concepts, codes and categories, and the human mind functions by forming conceptual pairs such as these. You see how one member of the pair, (here the left), is privileged. The right-handed term then becomes marginalised. So, deconstruction is a tactic decentering, a

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way of reading, which first makes us aware of the centrality of the central term. Then it attempts to subvert the central term so that the marginalised term can become central. The marginalized term temporarily overthrows the hierarchy.

Derrida thought that all text contained a legacy of these assumptions, and as a result of this, these texts could be re-interpreted with an awareness of the hierarchies implicit in language. Derrida does not think that we can reach an end point of interpretation, a truth for Derrida all texts exhibit „difference‟: they allow multiple interpretations. Meaning is diffuse, not settled. Textuality always gives us a surplus of possibilities, yet we cannot stand outside of textuality in an attempt to find objectivity. Textuality is realizing how a text means rather than what it means. It is the realization that a text is made up of words and that words can mean different things.

One consequence of deconstruction is that certainty in textual analysis becomes impossible. In the language of textual analysis, Derrida proposes that there are no fixed meanings present in the text, despite any appearance to the contrary. There may be competing interpretations. As a result, the meanings in a text constantly shift both in relations to the subject who works with the text, and in relation to the cultural and social world in which the text is immersed. In this way, the literal readings of texts, along with the intentions of the author, are called into question by Derrida‟s view of identity. His position privileges writing as opposed to speech and thought, for writing have a certain independence from author and reader which gives a priority to ambiguity, non-literality, and which frustrates the intentions of the author. The language used by historians was now understood to be both a mirror and a prison, and any historical text was imbricated, like petals in a flower, in negotiations with power structures within a society.

For Derrida language or „texts‟ are not a natural reflection of the world. Text structures our interpretations of the world. Derrida argues that that language shapes us; while

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texts create a clearing that we understand reality. Derrida‟s discourse, however, is not restricted to books or art works, for texts may consist of any set of ever-changing meanings.

Hence, the world, and almost any object or combination of objects in it, may be regarded as a

“text”.